Monday, September 7, we will celebrate Labor Day (“LD”). As we all know, the holiday has traditionally been celebrated on the first Monday of September. It is celebrated in various forms and at various dates in approximately 80 countries.
To most Americans LD merely symbolizes the unofficial end of summer and the impending beginning of the school year, although this year, since LD is so late, many schools have already commenced the Fall term. They enjoy the three-day weekend off from work. They spend the day with family and/or friends. They enjoy picnics, parades, vacations, shopping, baseball games and other sports activities (although not this year), and barbecues. They lament, but grudgingly accept, holiday traffic and long lines at airports. This year, because of the specter of COVID LD, LD celebrations will be different. More on this below.
Also, it is the reason why summer always seems to be so short. In our minds, we transfer the approximately three post-Labor Day weeks of the season to Autumn. But, what is the meaning and purpose of LD? Why do we celebrate it? How did it come about? Good questions. Read on for the answers.
As the name implies, the purpose of LD is to celebrate the accomplishments of the American Labor movement. Whatever one’s political views and affiliations, I think it is important and appropriate to understand Labor’s contributions to the growth and development of the US. For one thing, cheap labor was an integral component of the Industrial Revolution. When all was said and done, someone had to build all the roads, railroads, and cars, and operate all the factories and steel mills. In addition, the labor activism of the late 1800s and early 1900s was largely responsible for the relatively high wages and extensive benefits that are enjoyed by today’s US labor force (compared to that of other countries).
It should be noted that union membership has been declining sharply and steadily. For example in 1950 approximately 40% of American workers were members of a union. By contrast, in 2019 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number was approximately 11%
The history of LD began in the 1870s in Canada. Labor Unions were illegal in Canada, and 26 members of the Toronto Typographical Union had been imprisoned for striking for a nine-hour work day. That action led to demonstrations and rallies and raising the profile of labor unrest in both Canada and the US. Two of the most outspoken leaders were Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and an official of the American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Central Labor Union in NY.
Historical accounts differ, but one or both of these men are credited with being the first to propose a holiday to celebrate labor. In any event, the CLU planned and organized the first LD celebration in NYC on September 5, 1885. Approximately, 20,000 workers and their families participated. The concept spread. In 1887 Oregon became the first state to sanction the holiday.
The Pullman Labor Strike in 1893 provided the final impetus for a national labor holiday. The Pullman Company had been founded and was run by George Pullman. Pullman, IL, where the company operated, was a classic company town. All the workers lived there and paid rent to the company, which was automatically deducted from their paychecks. Workers’ housing was segregated according to their jobs; everyone shopped at the Company Store.
Many viewed such an arrangement as a form of slavery, because workers were, in actuality, trapped due to their omnipresent debt to the Company. (Think of the song “Sixteen Tons.”) In 1893 the country was in the midst of a recession. The company laid off hundreds of workers and reduced the wages of the others. Of course, living expenses remained constant. These actions led to a strike. President Cleveland declared the strike to be illegal and “broke” it with Federal troops. Some striking workers were killed in the ensuing violence.
This incensed many Americans, and 1894 was an election year. So, Congress expeditiously passed a bill establishing LD as a national holiday, and the President promptly signed it into law. This entire process took only six days, so you can imagine the extent of the public outcry. Incidentally, this action failed to save President Cleveland’s political career; he was defeated anyway.
Eventually, the government settled on the first Monday in September as the official date. Many countries celebrate it on May 1 in conjunction with International Workers’ Day, but the Federal government did not want the association with that date for obvious reasons.
As mentioned above, because of the CV many people have altered their holiday travel plans. For instance, AAA reports that road trips will be more popular, and fewer people will travel by air, ship, rail or mass transit. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, travel by car offers the safety of an enclosed environment. Travelers are not as exposed to other people as they would be with the other modes of travel.
Secondly, gas prices are very low compared to previous years. Thirdly, trips by air, ship or rail are often interstate, and one would have to deal with possible quarantine upon returning home. Fourthly, although the roads could be crowded they are preferable to the frustrations and inconveniences one normally encounters at, for example, the airports.
That said, AAA and NY-NJ Port Authority have reported they anticipate all modes of travel to have decline compared to recent years. For instance, the NYS Thruway has experienced a 25% drop in pre-LD traffic; travel by rail has declined 85%; cruises have essentially disappeared; and the three major airports in the NY area have reported a roughly 80% decrease in business. On the plus side, many locales have “wised up” and plan to suspend construction projects over the weekend.
Finally, any and all of the carefully planned travel arrangements will be subject to the vagaries of Mother Nature. In prior years, for example, hurricanes have affected travel, and the same could occur in 2020.
One of the supreme ironies of LD is that because it is such a big shopping day, many workers, especially retailers, are required to work. LD is considered to be one of the biggest retail sales days of the year. Some people use the day as a benchmark to change over their summer clothes to fall clothes. Fashion-minded people claim it the latest day when one should wear white clothes (although “winter white,” whatever that is, is still permissible.)
Like other holidays, LD should be a time for all of us to come together and reflect on what makes America, despite its flaws, the greatest country in the world. Disaffected residents as well as some people in other countries may like to criticize us for our real and perceived flaws, but yet foreigners still want to come here, in some cases, desperately. In essence, many of them are “voting with their feet.”
Despite what you may see on tv or read in newspapers or on social media, most Americans are decent, hard-working, caring persons. Whenever disaster or tragedy strikes we unite to help those in distress. Many have donated their time and/or money without being asked and without expecting any payback or even recognition. If you doubt me, just look at the outpouring of kindness and empathy shown by “average” Americans toward the victims of the catastrophic events in recent years, such as superstorm Sandy and hurricanes Katrina, Irma, Laura and Harvey.
To me, those people, not the destructive thugs and professional agitators one sees on the tv news destroying property, attacking the police, and beating up those with whom they disagree, are the “real” Americans. It is the proverbial “silver lining” in a very dark cloud.
I hope you all enjoy your Labor Day holiday, however you choose to spend it. You owe it to yourself after having endured a summer of lockdowns and medical, financial and economic uncertainty. Feel free to tell me what you did.